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Kissinger's Top Diplomatic Tips

IT is surely a lesson in the unpredictability of fame that an academic specialist in 19th-century geopolitics with a German accent and hair like breaking surf remains the most recognizable American statesman of the post-war era. United States secretaries of state may come and go, but Henry Kissinger seems forever with us, a fount of op-eds, a fixture on the policy chat shows, a perennial source of grave words on the question of the moment.

His consultancy remains prosperous and exclusive, even though it is now more than two decades since he had actual power - a feat of foreign-policy entrepreneurship other former high US officials have been unable to match. What does Kissinger have that, say, former Bush National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft does not? Why the continuing celebrity and rush of fees?

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Kissinger's mammoth and oddly fascinating new tome, ``Diplomacy,'' provides a partial answer. Others may match Richard Nixon's former secretary of state in the fatness of their Rolodexes and in their grasp of Realpolitik, but none can match his ability to teach the lessons of statesmanship. The title of the book might better be ``The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Secretaries of State.''

Diplomacy Tip No. 1: ``A statesman aware of approaching danger has to make a basic decision. If he believes that the threat will mount with the passage of time, he must try to nip it in the bud. But if he concludes that the looming danger reflects a fortuitous, if accidental, combination of circumstances, he is usually better off waiting and letting time erode the peril.''

This is not to say that ``Diplomacy'' does not contain history worth retelling. It does, and that history is retold at great length. It does seem somewhat odd that Austria's Prince von Metternich and the balance of power he dealt with in the 19th century should be covered in more detail than many of the events Kissinger himself participated in during the Nixon administration. Perhaps the author felt these events were amply covered in his memoirs and counts on readers to have already digested those huge volumes.

But then balance of power is what this book is about. Running through it is the theme that nations are best served when they act only on perceived interests, countering and joining others until the world reaches a kind of flexible stability. Morals and idealism are fine; they have surely been a part of ``American exceptionalism,'' in Kissinger's phrase, but they tend to get in the way. This is Realpolitik, that hard-headed approach, which in the US can also be recognizably described as ``Kissingeresque.''

Diplomacy Tip No. 2: ``Heads of government are notoriously vulnerable to arguments that question their courage.''

The second chapter of the book, which juxtaposes the traditional balance-of-power views of Theodore Roosevelt with the high-mindedness of Woodrow Wilson, first brings this point into focus. Yet Kissinger does not dismiss Wilson as simply an academic who misread the real sources of world conflict and, thus, the prospects for his cherished League of Nations. Wilson grasped what motivated the American people, as Kissinger points out; any American president who fails to invoke the US people's vision of themselves as especially moral - and intent on doing good in the world - does so at his peril.

``Diplomacy'' depicts Franklin D. Roosevelt as an embodiment of both Wilson and FDR's cousin Theodore, a man who combined appeals to higher vision with practical insight to deftly maneuver the nation towards involvement in World War II. His approach carried with it touches of deviousness, as Kissinger allows. Still, FDR knew what the nation needed, or believed he knew, even if the public didn't yet see it. To Kissinger this is the essence of effective statecraft.

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Diplomacy Tip No. 3: ``All great leaders walk alone. Their singularity springs from their ability to discern challenges that are not yet apparent to their contemporaries.''

``Diplomacy'' contains much that is relevant to today's affairs. Kissinger's retelling of the famous march of folly that involved the West in World War I is a good diplomatic cautionary tale; today, it also has the virtue of pointing out that Bosnia-Herzegovina is not the tinderbox it was. It took unthinking adherence to alliances that were stupid to begin with to turn the Balkans into a wider war.

In his final chapter, Kissinger explicitly makes a plea for a less-Wilsonian US foreign policy. Communism challenged Americans both morally and practically, or at least many US voters thought it did, enabling the country to sustain the long effort necessary to win the cold war. To Kissinger, in the power vacuum left by the Soviet Union's collapse, the US must carefully define national interests and explain why they are important to the public if it is to carry out successful foreign diplomacy.

Diplomacy Tip No. 4: ``The price for conducting foreign policy on the basis of abstract principles is the impossibility of distinguishing among individual cases.''

Still, in the end it is the maxims that sparkle while the history reads in a manner only slightly more sprightly than those textbooks you bought for your college class ``European History After 1848.'' Whatever he thinks of its policy prescriptions, President Clinton could do worse than read this book the next time his wife goes out of town to promote health-care reform.

Diplomacy Tip No. 5: ``One of the principal tasks of statesmanship is to understand which subjects are truly related and can be used to reinforce each other.''

Maybe Kissinger could even get this stuff on a how-to TV series. Cut out all the Metternich; leave in the tips. Call it ``This Old State Department,'' or maybe ``The Frugal Diplomat.''

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